The memory of meeting Pele is enshrined in my subconscious: His feats on the field were only surpassed by his humanity off it.
ONDRIVE with Sham Samaroo
January 1, 2023
On Thursday, December 29, football lost its greatest and most admired icon – Edson Arantes Do Nascimento, affectionately known worldwide as Pele. He was 82. Everyone knows of Pele’s astonishing feats – no point repeating them here. Suffice to say: Pele was, is and forever will remain the king of the beautiful game. Many of today’s “stars” are magnified and amplified by social media, in his day it was just word of mouth. Introduced to the world in 1958, it speaks volumes of Pele’s stature that 65 years on only three players can legitimately enter the debate about football’s greatest player, Maradona, Messi, and Ronaldo. But off the field there is no debate, Pele is unmatched. Knighted by Queen Elizabeth, he dined with royalty worldwide yet never lost the common touch. When he visited Washington to promote the game in the US, it was President Ronald Reagan who first offered his hand: “My name is Ronald Reagan. I’m the president of the United States of America. But you don’t need to introduce yourself because everyone knows who Pele is”.
I had the pleasure of meeting the great man in New York while I was a youth coach with Blau Weiss Gottschee soccer club. One of my players was selected to do a commercial with Pele (see photo inset). Pele’s son, Edson “Edinho”, also played for our club at the junior level and wherever the team went, fans flocked to see him. Now brace yourself for a surprise. Edson, the son of the legendary goal-scorer, was not a field player. He was our goalkeeper and a darn good one too! Edson would go on to play professional ball with Pele’s home club Santos. Learning of Pele’s passing; my thoughts naturally went back to the years at Gottschee. Here was this man, this legend, worshipped by millions: One who dined with kings, queens, the Pope, presidents, and yet he was so easy to talk to: A kind and gentle soul who didn’t give himself airs. For me, that is his most enduring accomplishment.
Afterwards, I revisited his autobiography where Pele talked about playing in the World Cup as a child in 1958 (in the 50s, a seventeen year old stepping into the cauldron of a World Cup was a child). When they saw this skinny little kid on the field, wrote Pele, “Many people in the stands have to think I’m the team mascot”. That game, against the Soviet Union, Brazil won 2-0 with teammate Vava scoring twice. Lying in bed that night, Pele recalled the unlikely events that brought him to that point. “I was extremely lucky to be in Sweden. I had been injured in a game before leaving Brazil and never expected to be taken along”. “It had to be God who did it – but why? Why had he chosen me?” wondered Pele. Before falling asleep, Pele concluded that, “whatever His motives, it had to be a miracle”.
Winning the World Cup for the first time in 1958, Brazil repeated the feat in 1962, and by the time 1966 rolled around Pele was a marked man. On the opening game against Bulgaria, Pele wrote, “I had been the target of merciless attacks from Zhechev”. “I firmly believed that Sir Stanley Rous, the British President of FIFA and the man who selected the referees, had instructed those referees to go easy on the “virile” game played by the European teams against the South Americans with the result that Zhechev did everything he could to physically cripple me and the referee did nothing”. Against Portugal, “Morais had a field day fouling me and eventually putting me out of the game. He tripped me and when I was stumbling to the ground, he leapt at me, feet first, and cut me down completely. The English referee, George McCabe, allowed Morais to remain on the field when in even the most inexperienced league in the world he would have been thrown out for either one, let alone the double foul” (Those are not my words. That’s Pele speaking). I have always maintained that the Europeans cannot stop the playmakers hence the “professional” foul. Professional my derrière.
The “unsportsmanlike play and the weak refereeing” that almost crippled Pele left a bitter after taste. “Who needed to face the type of refereeing we faced in England that year. And when I say ‘we’ I mean not just Brazil but all the South American teams”. “I swore I would never play in another World Cup game”. Pele shared two things that made him change his mind. “For one thing, the newspapers began to properly analyze the 1966 matches” and two, “the fact that the games were to be played in Mexico [not Europe]”.
That year, 1970, Brazil outfitted the most talented group of players ever to grace a football field – Carlos Alberto, Piazza, Everaldo, Gerson, Jairzinho, Clodoaldo, Rivelino, Edu, Tostao and, oh yes, Pele. Not surprisingly, Brazil won the Cup for a third time “which was now ours for all time”. There is so much footage and so much written about the 1970 World Cup, no point in repeating them here. Well, maybe just two very special moments, the first one was a save from the English keeper Gordon Banks. This is how Pele described it: “I leaped for it and headed it perfectly to one corner of the net while Banks was at the other corner. I was already shouting Gooooaaallll when Banks, like a salmon leaping up a falls, tipped it over the crossbar”. Playmakers tend to bring out the best in the opposition. The second moment was the goal Pele scored in the finals against Italy. The Italian defender Facchetti remembered it this way: “We went up together to head a ball. I was taller, had a better leap. When I came back down, I looked up in astonishment. Pelé was still there, in the air, heading that ball. It was like he could stay suspended for as long as he wanted to.” Long before air Jordan, there was air Pele.
In spite of his successes and fame, Pele remained grounded and humble: “I can only repeat what every football player knows. Stars don’t win games, teams do. Football is the ultimate in team sport and no individual can win a game by himself. Pele is a famous name, but Pele made his goals because another player passed to him. And Brazil won games because Pele didn’t try to make all the goals by himself but passed the ball to others – and that’s the way games are won”.
For the immeasurable joy he brought to millions around the globe, both on and off the field, one cannot help but agree with him when he concluded in 1958, “It had to be God who did it – but why? Why had he chosen me?” “It had to be a miracle”. His records may be broken, father time does that but his grace, his samba-like flair, and his infectious smile would be unmatched. May goalkeepers in heaven be not too tired retrieving balls from the back of the net. Rest in Peace, Dear King, you have given us so much to cherish.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.